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17th Century Exclusive Psalmody & Hymnody

So, what do you know of Puritan hymnody? Did the Puritans sing hymns? If so, what was the nature of the hymns they sang?

Earlier Reformed theologians debated this question and the evidence shows that no firm consensus existed on exclusive Psalmody in corporate worship. For example, the influential British theologian, John Ball (1585-1640), argues for the singing of uninspired hymns in his work, A friendly triall of the grounds tending to separation in a plain and modest dispute touching the lawfulnesse of a stinted liturgie and set form of prayer […] (London, 1640), 54-83. Evidently, his work influenced Samuel Langley who wrote uninspired hymns for public worship (see A catechisme shorter then the short catechisme compiled principally by Mr. Ball out of which this (for the most part) was taken, … also a spirituall song for the Lords Supper, or Communion, put into an ordinary tune […] together with two other hymns or psalms […] London, 1649).

The Presbyterian, Thomas Ford (1598–1674) argues strongly for singing Psalms and understands “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” to stand for mizmorim, tehilim, and shirim, which are the Hebrew names of David’s Psalms: Singing the psalmes the duty of Christians under the New Testament, or, A vindication of that gospel-ordinance in V sermons upon Ephesians 5, 19 wherein are asserted and cleared I. That, II. What, III. How, IV. Why [brace] we must sing […] (London, 1659), 13ff.

On pages 19-21, however, Ford seems to make a concession to non-inspired “psalms”:

“But I return to answer the former objection concerning singing of Psalmes composed by an ordinary and common gift, as God in his providence gives occasion. And to this I say that I am not so much against composing as imposing; when men set up their own new songs, and shut out David’s Psalms. Suppose it lawfull for men of spirituall mindes to endite a Psalm, and then commend it to others, and sing it; yet it will not follow, that therefore we must not sing the Psalmes of David.”

He seems to be arguing for inclusive Psalmody, not exclusive Psalmody, even though he exhibits a clear preference for Davidic Psalm singing. He adds, in reference to Ball’s argument (though not naming Ball):

“Obj. But here again ’tis objected, That we conceive Prayers, and therefore may as well conceive Psalmes too, for praising God upon occasion. Sol. I will not say it us unlawfull to conceive and compose a Psalm upon occasion. But I say again, there is no reason that our conceived Psalmes should should out David’s […].”

Edward Leigh (1603–1671), whose preferred ecclesiology was that of his friend, Archbishop James Ussher, a primitive episcopacy, makes the following comments in his work, A systeme or body of divinity (London, 1654), 610:

“As we may lawfully sing Scripture psalms, so also Songs and Psalms of our own […] inditing (say some) agreeable to Scripture, Sing unto the Lord a new Song, framed on a fresh occasion, therefore 1 Cor. 14. 26. a Psalm is named among those things which they had for the use of the Church. For seeing a Psalm is but a musical praier for the most part, therefore we may make Songs for our selves agreeable to the Word of God as well as prayers, and God knowing the efficacie of Poetry and Musick, to help memory and stirre up affection doth allow his people to use it for their spiritual comfort as well as natural. The Apostle speaketh of Psalms, Hymns and spiritual Songs, Ephes. 5. 19. & Col. 3. 16. Who can shew any reason to limit his speech to Scripture-psalms? Why may not one praise God in a Song for our deliverance in 88, or the Gun pouder treason?”

Similarly, the Presbyterian Thomas Manton (1620-1677) argues: “I confess we do not forbid other songs [non-Psalms]; if grace and pious, after good advice they may be received into the Church […] But that which I am to prove, that scriptural psalms may be sung, and I shall,

“I confess we do not forbid other songs [non-Psalms]; if grace and pious, after good advice they may be received into the Church […] But that which I am to prove, that scriptural psalms may be sung, and I shall, ek perissou, with advantage over and above, prove that they are fittest to be sung.” Works 4:441-445. See also, James Fergusson, A brief exposition of the Epistles of Paul to the Philippians and Colossians (Edinburgh, 1656), 230-31.

Paul Baynes, An Entire Commentary Upon the Epistle of St. Paul Written to the Colossians (London, 1643), 55:

“It (spiritual) is put in by way of distinction, opposite to the sensual songs which profane persons are delighted in. Now there are two kinds, the one extraordinary, such as the Spirit of God did immediately suggest. 2. Ordinary, such as men by benefit of memory could say out of Scripture, or frame themselves conformable thereto, and both these kinds are here meant.”

Finally, consider the case of William Barton (1598–1678), who was described as “a man of godly life, and able and orthodox in his ministry.” He composed a verse-translation of the Psalms was first published in 1644. He writes:

“The Scots of late have put forth a Psalm-Book, most what Composed out of mine and Mr. Rous his, but it did not give full satisfaction, for somebody hath been at Charge to put forth a new Edition of mine, and printed some Thousands of mine, in Holland, as it is reported. But whether they were Printed there or no, I am in doubt, for I am sure that 1,500 of my Books were heretofore Printed by stealth in England and carried over into Ireland” (Barton, The Book of Psalms in Metre, 1691, sig. A5r).

Besides the book of Psalms, Barton printed the a number of spiritual songs arguing that ‘these Hymns are plainer than Psalms and more suitable to our condition.’ Note, Barton wrote a very lengthy work, Six centuries of select hymns and spiritual songs collected out of the Holy Bible … (London: 1688).

At the suggestion of Richard Baxter, Barton argued that singing spiritual songs and psalms tended towards true godliness. Singing Scripture is a way to teach and admonish one another (Col. 3.16).

As Barton suggests:

“For certainly the most pressing passages of Holy Scriptures being put into smooth and familiar verse, (keeping also the order, and, as much as may be, the words of the Prost-translation) will fix good lessons in our mind and memory, so as to edify the understanding, and kindle the affection …”

Barton does not, however, see himself as an innovator in singing beyond the Psalter. Why? Because, he argues, “And how frequent, famous and familiar was the use of hymns in the ancient churches is both attested by the Ancients themselves, and applauded by worthy Writers of the later times.”

He has in mind Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Eusebius. In fact, Eusebius writes: (see Eusebius, de praeparatione Evangelica. lib. 12. chap. 14)

“That by good right and reason, Christians did train up their children in Godliness, by the use of Songs and Hymns. And in his Ecclesiastical History, Lib. 5. Chap. 25. of the English translation, page. 94, line, 1. we have these words: How many Psalms and Hymns and Canticles were written from the beginning by faithful Christians, which do celebrate the praise of Christ, &c.”

Besides the Early Fathers, Barton references the “learned Bishop Davenant” who argues on account of Col. 3:16 that “it is apparent by ancient writers, that the ancient churches did use Hymns.”

Moreover, Cemenius, in a book dedicated to the King, argues that the Bohemian Christians had “above 700 hymns in use, besides the Psalms of David. Benedictus Aretius (1505-1575) wrote, in reference to 1 Tim. 1.15 (This is a faithful saying), that these words are a “saying worthy of a Golden Pen, And to be sung in the church by Christian Men.”

Barton writes of his intention that his hymns are composed (for the most part) “of Context Scriptures, seldom fetching in any other save for a Doxology, and therefore one quotation at the beginning doth commonly serve for all …”

Then Barton asks the question: Of what account then should Hymns be among Christians?

“Hymns especially taken out of the Holy Scriptures … whereby we may gather that the Hymns used anciently were composed out of the Sacred Scriptures, and certainly such as are thence aptly composed and keep nearest to the original Text are the most spiritual and fittest to be sung in God’s worship.”

But, wasn’t Psalmody the rule, especially among the 17thC Reformed orthodox? Barton is not unaware of the issue of singing outside of the Psalter.

“But if any shall think it far inferior, for these ends, to the accustomed psalmody; I hope I have now, in the regulation of the Psalm-Hymns, given further satisfaction; having retained none but such pressing parts and passages as are generally suitable to the condition of all good Christians.”

Let me offer one example of the type of hymns composed by Barton:

Hymn 5 “The Covenant of Works”

Gen. 2.16

And God the Lord did give command

To Adam, saying, understand

Of every tree this ground doth bear

Thou mayest eat freely any where.

But of the tree of Knowledge (still)

Knowledge, I say, of Good and Ill,

To eat thereof be not entic’d,

For if thou eat thereof thou dy’st.

This tree, I say, which I so call

Thou shalt not eat of it at all:

For in the Day that thou shalt try

To eat thereof, thou sure shalt die.

All Glory to the Holy One

That sits upon the Sovereign Throne,

And to the Son and Holy Ghost

Be Glory to the uttermost.

In short, there is plenty of evidence that mant notable Reformed writers positively argued for the inclusion of hymns, besides Psalms, in corporate worship. To suggest there was consensus is, of course, to make an argument that simply cannot be sustained by the evidence presented above.

By Mark Jones

The Rev. Dr. Mark Jones (PhD, Leiden Universiteit) has been the Minister at Faith Vancouver since 2007. He is also Research Associate in the Faculty of Theology at University of the Free State, Bloemfontein, South Africa. Dr. Jones is the author of several books, including Knowing Christ, God Is, Living For God (2020 Crossway).

One reply on “17th Century Exclusive Psalmody & Hymnody”

Well written. As a Presbyterian minister, I believe the Westminster Confession and even more important Holy Scripture contends for inclusive Hymnody and Psalmody. Including the use of Creeds in worship. Well done for adding balance to the debate,
Kevin Bidwell
Sheffield Evangelical Presbyterian Church

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